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  • Title: Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay: Critical Introduction
  • Author: Christopher Matusiak

  • Copyright Queen's Men Editions. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Christopher Matusiak
    Peer Reviewed

    Critical Introduction

    3: “If thou hadst seen, as I did”: The Eyes and their Discontents

    If Friar Bacon始s disjunctions ultimately defy the anachronistic criterion of formal unity, might they serve another purpose? Holding opposing points of view in tension creates, for instance, a mood that is interrogative rather than prescriptive. Questions are raised but no definitive answers are provided, an open-endedness that encourages active intellectual involvement on the part of playgoer. Do we easily condemn the arrogant necromancer when his professed intention is to protect the nation? May a dairymaid, if inherently noble, defy social propriety and marry a lord? Will academic prestige survive immersion in the solvent of professional labor? Greene始s habit of calling upon spectators to entertain multiple points of view hearkens back to the rhetorical training he received at Cambridge and Oxford (see the Textual Introduction). Regular participation in academic debate (disputatio) encouraged students to master the Ciceronian technique of argumentum in utremque partem—the taking up of alternative positions in relation to moral, ethical, and metaphysical controversies. Students engaged in this practice both formally and in impromptu ways many times a week, and in many it instilled a notion of truth that was more dialectical and paradoxical than absolute, one contingent upon the exigencies of time, circumstance, and prejudice (Altman 31-53; Shuger 313-20). “Ethical polyphony” is a feature of even the most propagandist drama written by humanist-educated playwrights, for whom the stage became “a kind of rhetorical gymnasium in which muscles could be flexed and imagined as if at full power” (Hunter, “Rhetoric” 113-16).

    By compelling an audience to grapple with contradictory points of view, Friar Bacon in effect replicates the intellectual challenge of academic debate and signals its preoccupation with the perspectival nature of human experience. To reinforce this idea, Greene notably foregrounds the operation of human sight. Playgoers hear the word eye spoken nineteen times over the course of the action, and watch, look and see recur twenty, thirty, and over sixty times respectively. Each of Greene始s three main settings—the pastoral countryside in Sussex, the university at Oxford, and the peripatetic Plantagenet court—is a place “to see and to be seen” performing amorous, academic, and political roles (TLN 141). Moreover, acts of seeing conspicuously motivate what characters do and say. The thread of erotic intrigue is spun when Prince Edward first catches sight of Margaret. “Tell me, Ned Lacy,” he asks his friend, the Earl of Lincoln, “didst thou mark the maid, / How lively in her country weeds she looked?” (TLN 41-42). It is her eyes especially that enrapture him:

    I tell thee Lacy, that her sparkling eyes
    Do lighten forth sweet love始s alluring fire,
    And in her tresses she doth fold the looks
    Of such as gaze upon her golden hair. (TLN 55-58)

    Lacy is no less profoundly affected by the sight of Margaret, later confessing to her that “when mine eyes surveyed your beauteous looks, / Love, like a wag, straight dived into my heart, / And there did shrine the idea of yourself” (TLN 713-15).

    For Elizabethans, eyesight was generally thought to offer the most direct access to knowledge, an idea inherited from ancient Graeco-Arabic scholars and passed down in the works of medieval philosophers like Roger Bacon (c. 1214-c.1296) (Lindberg, “Science of Optics” 349-54). The eyes were said to cast out a pair of luminous rays which coupled with the likeness (or species, from the Greek specmeaning ‘the appearance of a thing始) radiated from from every visible thing, from the ants to the stars. Impressing itself upon the beholder始s eye, the object of perception dematerialized, becoming a cognitive picture in the mind, a phantasm or fancy (Lindberg, Roger Baconxxv-lii; Tachau 336-59). The “alluring fire” that Margaret始s eyes emit in the quotation above invokes precisely this model, reaching out and holding Edward始s gaze long enough for the beauty of her hair to “fold” (or enfold) the prince始s own eye-beams. And what Lacy later describes as the “idea” of Margaret enshrined in his thoughts correlates with the second phase of perception outlined above, the creation of a mental phantasm or fancy. This faculty of the oculus mentis, or eye of the mind, was considered especially important: not only did it organize one始s conception of the external world, but it made comprehensible things divine and beyond the pale of everyday perception (Clark 10-18).

    Relying heavily on sight to convey the nature of reality and metaphysics, Elizabethans were understandably anxious about its potential for distortion. Even minor misapprehensions, they observed, might radically warp the phantasms of interior experience, creating biased and even wholly inaccurate conceptions of reality. The question of whether “the commodities of sight” outweighed the “great hurts it brings to men” was a matter for serious debate considering how susceptible eyes could be to “voluptuous delights … which daily end in bitterness, alienation of sense, provocation to envy, irritation, and commotion against the heart” (Estienne F1r-F4v). As Stuart Clark has argued, one of the defining aspects of the early modern period writ large was the way “vision came to be characterized by uncertainty and unreliability, such that access to visual reality could no longer be normally guaranteed” (2). Indeed, Friar Bacon expresses considerable skepticism about the integrity of sight as an epistemological basis and foundation of moral practice. Sight may be a powerful means of acquiring knowledge of the world, but as Lacy cautions, “Eyes are dissemblers and fancy is but queasy” (TLN 1522). We all too easily mistake “fond conceit” for objectivity, as Margaret observes, giving ourselves over to skewed perspectives on reality whose insubstantial “hap and essence hangeth in the eye” (TLN 1957-1958).

    Experiences of erotic melancholy and idolatry affect perception most prominently in Friar Bacon, and the distortions they create are represented as analogous. In Elizabethan medicine, the perturbations of melancholy were held to be as disruptive as those of devils or magicians (Clark 39, 53-4). Dullness was said to be induced “both in outward senses and conceit” when a “splenetic fog” prevented the eyes from providing a “true report” of reality; thus clouded, “uglie illusions” and “monstrous fictions” easily populated the mind, all “vayne, false, and voide of grounde” (Bright 101-3, 124). It is an apt diagnosis of the “malcontented” Prince Edward (TLN 1). Brooding for the better part of the play in a “melancholy dump” (TLN 15), the prince始s troubled emotions lead him down a dark path of sexual aggressiveness and threatened violence, and most disturbingly, so long as his vantage point remains inflected by his passion, he remains imperceptive of his own cruelty—a cognitive prisoner of himself. His attraction to Margaret, the “bonny damsel” in “stammel red,” is depicted as unwholesome and dehumanizing: he fills her father始s lodge with venison with the expectation of venery in return, a “dear” for the “deer” on his royal game reserve (TLN 1-23). When Margaret rejects the prince始s advances, his sexual frustration leaves the royal son/sun “like to a troubled sky / When heaven始s bright shine is shadowed with a fog” (TLN 1-2). The depth of his obsession is sounded by his Petrarchan blazoning of her “curious imagery” (TLN 66)—her hair, cheeks, teeth and lips—an impassioned exercise that transforms the Fressingfield laborer into a deity on earth:

    When as she swept like Venus through the house,
    And in her shape fast folded up my thoughts,
    Into the milk-house went I with the maid,
    And there amongst the cream bowls she did shine
    As Pallas 始mongst her princely huswifery.
    She turned her smock over her lily arms
    And dived them into milk to run her cheese;
    But whiter than the milk her crystal skin,
    Checked with lines of azure, made her blush,
    That art or nature durst bring for compare.
    Ermsby, if thou hadst seen, as I did note it well,
    How beauty played the huswife, how this girl
    Like Lucrece laid her fingers to the work,
    Thou wouldst with Tarquin hazard Rome and all
    To win the lovely maid of Fressingfield. (TLN 77-91)

    Edward may insist he has witnessed Margaret始s beauty for what it is (“if thou hadst seen, as I did note it well”) but the ironic distance between the figure his imagination has constructed and the woman herself is plain. Most ominously, in the concluding lines of his reverie he self-identifies with Tarquin, the legendary Roman king whose furtive and destructive rape of the matron Lucrece instigated both her tragic suicide and his political overthrow. The point of Greene始s allusion is clear: Edward must escape the prison of possessive lust, or similar horrors will follow.

    At the height of his infatuation with Margaret, Edward sends the disguised Lacy to “espy her loves” and woo by proxy, while enlisting Bacon始s magical aid to peer invasively into her private activity (TLN 144-145). His use of the words “plot” and “policy” to describe these designs imply rationality, but the emotionally reckless and despotic nature of his behavior is soon apparent: “it must be necromantic spells, / And charms of art that must enchain her love” (TLN 109, 121, 125-126). The involvement of Bacon始s mysterious glass helps to underscore the problematic nature of his “troubled” gaze. Staring into the instrument grants Edward a precise visual image of Lacy and Margaret始s intention to marry, but it does not permit him to hear their conversation. Sight alone prevents Edward from registering Lacy始s agonized deliberation over how to protect Margaret from the prince始s vexing lust and the prince himself from the stigma of dishonor. In Lacy始s own words:

    Recant thee, Lacy, thou art put in trust.
    Edward, thy sovereign始s son, hath chosen thee
    A secret friend to court her for himself,
    And darest thou wrong thy prince with treachery?
    Lacy, love makes no exception of a friend,
    Nor deems it of a prince but as a man.
    Honor bids thee control him in his lust.
    His wooing is not for to wed the girl,
    But to entrap her and beguile the lass.
    Lacy, thou lovest; then brook not such abuse,
    But wed her, and abide thy prince始s frown:
    For better die than see her live disgraced. (TLN 689-700)

    The prince始s reaction to Margaret and Lacy始s affection punctuates Greene始s point about the dangerous potential of solitary perspectival confinement. “Gog始s wounds, Bacon, they kiss!” the prince cries, raising his dagger, “I始ll stab them!” (TLN 762). Bacon始s response (“Oh hold your hands, my lord, it is the glass!”) tells us Edward directs his anger toward the simulacrum produced by the magical object, a vivid externalized metaphor for the capacity of interior phantasms to divert the subject from reason and objectivity (Senn 552-53). A timely moment of clarity and the exertion of will are all that prevent the precarious situation from tipping over into tragedy. Reining in his destructive caprice, Edward opens his eyes to the fact that his darkened state of amorousness has made him confuse “shadows” for “substances” (TLN 764-65).

    Edwards allusion to shadows and substances echoes language used in theological discourse of the era. The religious conviction that eyes were gateways to temptation and wickedness did much to further undermine Elizabethan confidence in visual perception. “The light of the body is the eye” pronounced the gospel, “when thine eye is evil, thy body is also full of darkness” (Luke 11: 34). For English Protestants, the glories of God were everywhere visible, but the universe was packed as well with vanities that threatened to beguile sensory and rational faculties corrupted by Original Sin. Calvinist clergyman such as George Hakewill (1578-1649) decried the world as a theater of misapprehension in which every spectator was prone to:

    the delusion of the sight by the subtlety of the devil, by the charms of sorcerers, by the spells and exorcisms of conjurers, by the legerdemain of jugglers, by the knavery of priests and friars, by the nimbleness of tumblers and ropewalkers, by the sleights of false and cunning merchants, by the smooth deportment and behavior of hypocrites, by the stratagems of generals, by the giddiness of the brain, by the distemper of frenzies, and lastly, by the violent passions of fear and melancholy; besides a thousand pretty conclusions drawn out of the bowels of natural philosophy and the mathematics; by the burning of certain mixed powders, oils, & liquors; by the casting of false lights, by the reflection of glasses, and the like (53-54)

    A generation earlier, the danger inherent in such delusions had been spelled out by the second Elizabethan Tome of Homilies (1563). Preached in parish churches as a matter of government policy, the official sermon “against peril of idolatry” denounced the worship of Catholicism始s material adornments, claiming that “if religion stand in godly things (and there is no godliness but in heavenly things) then be images without religion” (fol. 24r). To invest a fresco, a sculpture, or other hand-wrought image of “dead stock or stone, gold or silver” with spiritual power was to devote oneself to an ephemeral creation instead of the incorruptible Creator; it was a diverting exercise of eye-service in place of the ear-service and genuine comprehension of the Word considered necessary for salvation. According to the homilist, the “inclination to idolatry” was innate in human beings, leaving “infinite multitudes” entrapped in their adoration of images like “dared [fascinated] larks in that gaze”; indeed, “how should the unlearned, simple, & foolish scape the nets and snares of idols and images, in the which the wisest and the best learned have been so entangled, trapped, and wrapped?” (fol. 67r-v, 70r; Clark 163-66) The endemic nature of this idolatrous instinct thus motivated Protestant reformers to limit the use of images, and in some cases to remove them altogether, in the practice of worship.

    In Edward始s case, the iconoclastic act a psychological one that becomes apparent to him in a critical moment in scene 7. As he menaces the kneeling Margaret and Lacy with his dagger, a timely moment of self-reflection permits him to recognize the nature of his false adoration; “subduing fancy始s passion,” he acknowledges the earnestness with which is friends love each other, and the deified idol—the false construction of a woman— enshrined in his imagination relinquishes its hold on him. In the wake of the Reformation, as Huston Diehl has observed, equating religious idolatry with an obsession for feminine beauty became a standard rhetoric trope: “whatever entices the eyes, beguiles or enchants the mind, fires the imagination, or captivates the heart is idolatrous, and according the Renaissance theories of eros, women do all of these things” (164). Adjusting his perception of Margaret is thus more than a matter of honor for Edward; it is a spiritual victory:

    Edward art thou that famous prince of Wales
    Who at Damascus beat the Saracens
    And brought始st home triumph on thy lance始s point,
    And shall thy plumes be pulled by Venus down?
    Is it princely to dissever lovers始 leagues,
    To part such friends as glory in their loves?
    Leave, Ned, and make a virtue of this fault,
    And further Peg and Lacy in their loves.
    So in subduing fancy始s passion,
    Conquering thyself, thou get始st the richest spoil.-- (TLN 1058-1067)

    An even more direct engagement with the theme of idolatrous perception becomes apparent in scenes involving the brazen head. Greene始s interest in the theme had already been signaled by his earlier staging of an Islamic head of brass in Alphonsus (see the Supplementary Materials). In Friar Bacon, the property is again figured as a graven image, “contrived and framed” with infernal assistance (TLN 229-230). Bacon, overwhelmed by fascination for the artifact, places the entirety of his faith in its promise of knowledge, power, and protection. Diverging from his prose source, Greene lengthens the duration of the friar始s devotion to the object: after seven years spent fashioning it, he watches it for “threescore days” as if “Argus lived and had his hundred eyes” (TLN 1584, 1586). Protestant polemic regularly indicted the illusory or “magical” thinking that enabled idols to be treated as though vibrant with miraculous power, deeming the encouragement of such thinking on the part of Catholic authorities an act of “conjuring” or “juggling” (Clark 166, 174-89). To the Elizabethan homilist idols were “dead” things destined to perish in time. The same message is articulated in Greene始s allegory by the brazen head始s famous utterance—“Time is. Time Was. Time is past.” Even brass, that common symbol of endurance (as in Shakespeare始s 65th sonnet), will be reduced to dust eventually by the deprivations of time. Greene makes the point emblematically when the brazen head is finally broken into pieces like an eggshell, exposing its ultimate hollowness and insubstantiality. Notably, it is a moment Bacon fails to see. Drowsy after weeks of staring at his idol, he has closed his eyes to sleep, a standard means of signifying spiritual vulnerability in early English drama.

    The play始s festive resolution depends upon the acknowledgment of idolatry始s perils (Dalhquist 70). Edward must set aside his voyeuristic imaginings of Margaret and attend to the political duties that await him at the court of his father, King Henry; Bacon must abjure delusions of magical grandeur and humble himself before another father, God. But before these iconoclastic acts disrupt the excitement stirred in these characters by their idols, Greene始s dialectical mindset, his habit of engaging with controversies in utramque partem, leads him to impress upon the audience the powerful claims of the perspectives rejected. Turning from Margaret proves a genuine challenge for Edward because it means stifling desire that, while morally anarchic, is nevertheless authentic. He surrenders autonomy over his erotic future as he pivots toward Eleanor of Castile and a diplomatic union arranged by his father (TLN 1094-1095). Bacon, too, upon awakening from his literal and figurative sleep, must ensure the shards of his smashed prospective glass are added to the pile that was once the brazen head: “So fade the glass, and end with it the shows / That necromancy did infuse the crystal with” (TLN 1867-1868). In breaking the glass, he signals his willingness to forego ambitiousness that, while misguided, is understandably seductive because rooted in the familiar desire to transcend human limitations, and to fend off the dread of mortality with the shield of worldly fame.

    We will never know the extent to which Greene was personally invested in advocating for iconoclasm. Some argue that his rehearsal of moral conventions onstage amounts to no more than lip-service, a superficial and opportunistic appropriation of earlier moral drama essentially emptied of its original import (Peterson 78-80). Others sense in Greene始s work an authentic and even vigorous moralism, possibly instilled in youth in the orbit of the charismatic Calvinist preacher John More (Greene, Repentance C1r-C4v; Ide 432-36). Even these critics, it should be noted, remain divided as to whether Friar Bacon始s iconoclasm exhorts specifically against Catholic religious practice (Sager 86) or against an emergent atheistic devotion to scientific technology (Dahlquist 67-73). The view expressed in the present edition of the play is that calculation indeed lurks in Greene始s ambiguity. The disembodied hand that destroys the brazen head with its accompanying thunder and lightning evokes a distinctly supernatural agent, hinting at the generally Calvinist conception of a divine presence beyond the meagre capacity of human comprehension. When Bacon breaks his prospective glass with his own hands, it is arguably the figurative rather than the literal dimension of the moment that is most striking. The glass has been described as an instrument that shows its users “what so their thoughts or hearts始 desires could wish” (TLN 1809-10). The view it affords is telescopic, but not a more objective: true objectivity, the play asserts, inheres in knowing that perception is partial, situated, and easily warped. The smashed glass is thus emblematic of the radical interior transformation of the oculus mentis that Protestant reformers considered necessary for salvation: the repudiation of a technologically-enhanced view of the world, and with it the false assumption of god始s-eye omniscience, connotes a decisive break with intellectual pride. To perceive less with the bodily eye is to be better oriented in relation to spiritual reality.

    This generalized pattern of broken idols aligns neatly with the ideological aims of the acting company that first performed Greene始s play, the Queen始s Men. Although the government of Elizabeth I sought to inculcate an iconoclastic attitude with its prescribed homiletic discourse, it did not generally favor the indiscriminate destruction of church fabric by more fervent Puritans intent on root-and-branch religious reformation. In this context, Friar Bacon始s specific emphasis on idols of the mind and its downplaying of zealous idol-breaking by human agents, appears to reflect the more moderate stance of the players始 nominal patron. And as the final section of this essay will show, it one of several aspects of the play calibrated to suit the actors who represented Queen Elizabeth and her interests.